Just what the country needs on the eve of a highly contested presidential election in the midst of a disinformation crisis: a high-visibility docudrama based on a book by one of the most controversial figures in the 2016 election, a former F.B.I. director denounced by one candidate and then hired and publicly fired by the other.
Furthermore, the film is filled with actors playing real people, many of whom are still in government and running the country or on cable TV selling books and spinning narratives that celebrate their tribes and trash others ― whether they are true or not.
Good luck finding facts, truth or any enlightenment in “The Comey Rule,” a prime-time saga of ambition, betrayal, lies, long knives and short presidential attention spans airing Sept. 27 and 28 on Showtime. The production is based on former F.B.I. Director James Comey’s book “A Higher Loyalty.”
Yes, that James Comey, the man Hillary Rodham Clinton blames for costing her the presidency in 2016 by reopening an investigation on the eve of the election into her private use of an email server while she was secretary of state. There’s no shortage of drama both in the real Comey story and the Showtime production starring Jeff Daniels as the former FBI director. Remember Comey’s very public firing by President Trump with full cable news coverage while he was in Los Angeles visiting the bureau’s office there? The film covers Comey’s career from his appointment by President Obama to director of the bureau in 2013 through his firing in 2017.
I am not a fan of docudramas. I have always hated the fact that TV producers and writers can take a piece of our shared national history and change it into something else with dialogue or actions invented to make it more dramatic or appealing as entertainment.
Case in point: the 2003 CBS docudrama, “The Reagans,” which looked at the life of Republican President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan. It was scheduled as a big event on the network’s fall schedule, but it was pulled shortly before it premiered after portions of its script were leaked and conservatives went to war over a line of dialogue that found Nancy Reagan (played by Judy Davis) asking her husband (played by James Brolin) to do more to help victims of AIDS. The docudrama has him replying: “They that live in sin shall die in sin.”
Pretty cold blooded and nasty, except Reagan never said that. The filmmakers acknowledged they made it up. The historical record does show a deplorable lack of empathy by Reagan to those suffering from AIDS during his presidency in the 1980s, but you don’t invent statements to make your case and try to peddle it as history.
What historians and documentary filmmakers do is find verifiable evidence and present it in context whether or not it makes for good entertainment. But that’s not the way it works in docudramas. The “docu” part regularly plays second fiddle to the “drama” factor in big-budget prime-time productions.
(For the record, as a result of the controversy, CBS never aired the film. Instead it aired on Showtime, which was owned by the same Hollywood company. The invented line of dialogue was edited out of the Showtime version.)
“The Comey Rule” is even more problematic in some ways than “The Reagans," which aired 14 years after Reagan left office in 1989. “The Comey Rule” deals with matters still very much in the news and, in some cases, important to the upcoming presidential vote on Nov. 3.
Wednesday as I was screening the docudrama, I took a break to check what was happening in the world of cable news. I had just finished watching a scene in “The Comey Rule” that included F.B.I. agent Peter Strzok (played by Steven Pasquale) and Lisa Page (played by Oona Chaplin), the FBI lawyer with whom he exchanged texts denigrating President Trump during an agency investigation of Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election. As I turned on the TV, there on MSNBC was the real Strzok promoting his book, “Compromised” and talking about Trump.
The film opens with Rod Rosenstein (played by Scoot McNairy), then deputy attorney general after serving 12 years as United States Attorney for the District of Maryland, pulling Comey’s book off a shelf in his office and describing Comey as a “showboat” to a young Justice Department aide (played by Dalmar Abuzeid).
“In governance, there are people who do the work and there are showboats,” Rosenstein says. “Jim was always a showboat.”
Hearing that at the start, some viewers might think there would be multiple points of view offered about Comey and his actions. But they would be wrong. The overwhelmingly dominant point of view throughout is that what Comey did in reopening that investigation of Clinton on the eve of the election was done strictly out of high sense of duty and honor. In fact, virtually every action Comey takes in the film is depicted as having been done out of a high sense of duty and honor. It is, after all, based on his book. Who do you think is going to be the good guy?
Even Comey’s wife, Patrice (played by Jennifer Ehle), pleads with him not to reopen the Clinton investigation on the eve of the election. But what can a man do when duty calls?
As entertainment, Night 2 is much better than Night 1. The reason: The villain arrives Night 2 in the person of Trump as played by Brendan Gleeson. It isn’t that Gleeson turns in a great performance, but now you have a flesh and blood antagonist to face off against the hero.
Gleeson plays Trump as a crude gangster, an organized crime boss, an amoral character who expects unquestioning loyalty and total obedience from members of his crew. He plays nice with Comey at first, but when his F.B.I. director doesn’t respond with blind obedience, it is just a matter of time before Comey feels his wrath. There is dramatic tension in waiting to see how long Gleeson’s Trump is going to indulge Comey before his anger explodes.
But the performance by Daniels isn’t great either. It is in some ways as one-dimensional as Gleeson’s Trump, which rather than rich, multi-textured drama makes for more of a morality play with honor versus dishonor in the leading roles.
In the end, what matters to me about this film has little to do with entertainment. It is instead the way it adds to the information crisis in which we now live.
Journalism is still widely thought to be the first draft of history. And when done right, it does provide the facts and documentation that historians will winnow and sift for a more lasting record and interpretation of events.
But if journalism is the first draft, what are docudramas like this if not a third draft, with the second draft being books like Comey’s on which they are based?
The presumption is that each draft is an improvement that gets us closer to truth. But as Hollywood gets involved with its entertainment imperatives, we can actually get farther from the truth with each succeeding draft. And there is a good chance that the embellished or altogether invented version of events, rather than what really happened, will be the one most remembered because millions saw it on TV.